Indians in outer space


Sir: On July 1, 2013, the Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) received another boost by the launch of a geostationary satellite. Though the rocket has a presumable reach of 6,000 km, this apparently peaceful advancement in space has military potential. For instance, it is a step towards India’s gradually building an anti-ballistic missile defence shield and enhancement of its reconnaissance potential. One wonders if this potential militarisation of space will ultimately lead to weaponisation and compel New Delhi’s current and future adversaries to respond in letter and spirit. These satellites carry peaceful payloads but can also carry weapons of mass destruction. For instance, satellite delivery systems help place in outer space navigation solutions like the American Global Positioning System, Russian Glonass and Chinese Beidou. Likewise, if a nuclear weapon warhead is placed on the rocket, it can obliterate everything. The early warning function of these so-called peaceful satellites facilitate a ballistic missile defence shield and thus increase the intercept capabilities in the boost or mid-course phase of a ballistic missile. This is apparently an excellent defensive use. However, it may give a false sense of security to India and may even encourage it to launch a pre-emptive strike against its adversary. In the case of India and Pakistan, the chances of things getting messy are higher than other adversaries who get more reaction time due to geographical distances. India will achieve almost nothing by such a satellite endeavour with respect to missile defence due to geographical contiguity with Pakistan. If India develops a military space capability, it will greatly affect the nuclear deterrence with Pakistan. India may just compel Pakistan to take further initiatives in its nuclear and military posture. Pakistan’s missile and space programme is not ambitious at the moment. 
History shows that India has always provoked Pakistan to reluctantly respond to its ‘peaceful’ initiatives. If New Delhi makes long range delivery systems like Agni VI, other states, and even the US, will start factoring it in their threat calculus. At the moment, Europe and the US are lulled by their economic cooperation with India. Pakistan must multiply its efforts to develop suitable defensive means for penetrating any such Indian endeavours. These may vary from the use of missiles, aircraft and to very modest conventional means of defeating the Indian defensive shield. Pakistan must bolster its second strike capability through nuclear submarines. Submarine launched cruise missiles will be very difficult for satellites to intercept because it is very difficult to track and hunt a submarine. Likewise, the multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) is also a good defensive option to defeat Indian space-based military potential. The geo stationary early warning satellites theoretically cannot distinguish between ‘warheads’ and ‘decoys’ from MIRV missiles. Given the economic challenges, Pakistan may find it difficult to develop satellite-based early warning capability. The Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) may ultimately have to keep all its options open to match Indian capabilities. For instance, an anti-satellite weapons programme may become necessary if India weaponises outer space. That is why negotiating a multilateral and non-discriminatory outer-space treaty is so essential. One can hope that the Indian space programme remains peaceful.


HASAN EHTISHAM


Via e-mail

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